The angel’s share

The angel’s share

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
8 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

We’d been invited to have lunch at a popular seafood restaurant on the coast near Jounieh, just north of Beirut. From the spacious upstairs dining room there was an uninterrupted view of the coastline back to the city. A storm was brewing, and waves were crashing against the shoreline but inside things were looking more promising. An array of exquisitely presented mezze dishes were spread out in front of us, and our host, Sami, decided that we should all drink arak. ‘It is the only drink to have with the mezze,’ he insisted.

Aniseed-flavoured spirits are popular all around the Mediterranean, from Greek ouzo and Turkish raki to Italian sambucca and French pastis. But they often tend to be sickly sweet and we weren’t at all convinced that this was what we wanted to drink. ‘No, no, no,’ said Sami. ‘Arak is quite different. The pastis and sambucca have herbs and spices in them. And sugar,’ he added, with a shudder. ‘Arak is pure. It has only two ingredients: the grapes and the aniseed. It is a fresh taste and it rinses the mouth when you eat the mezze.’

A few hours later we were quite prepared to agree with him. Arak did indeed seem to be the only drink to have with mezze, where lemon, garlic and spicy flavours often compete. The spirit is fiercely alcoholic – 54 per cent proof, on average – but when diluted with water it becomes a smooth, refreshing drink that clears the palate more efficiently than wine.

The arak we had been drinking was a tall and elegant blue bottle from the Massaya Vineyard in the Bekaa Valley. So the next morning we decided to drive out to the winery to become even better acquainted with Lebanon’s national drink.

We bumped along a dusty track, nosing our way through a small flock of goats being hurried along by a shepherd boy. The Bekaa Valley is infamous as a stronghold of Muslim fundamentalism, and so seems an unlikely setting for a vineyard, but its sheltered, warm climate and low levels of rainfall make it perfectly suited for growing grapes. As if on cue, just as we turned off the track into the walled grounds of Massaya, the muezzin’s wail started up from the minaret of a small mosque nearby.

The first of the new season’s growth was just starting to appear on the neatly clipped rows of vines. We learned from our tour guide that the winery was less than ten years old. In addition to its distinctively bottled arak, Massaya also produced a successful range of table wines.

Although partly backed by French money and oenological know-how, Massaya is actually the brainchild of two Lebanese brothers, Sami and Ramzi Ghosn. Ramzi invited us into his office and he leaned earnestly across his desk when we asked him about the distinctive blue bottle.

‘The Lebanese always want to be fashionable, to have the latest things,’ he said, in flawless, American-accented English. ‘The quality and reputation of arak suffered a lot during and after the war, and my brother and I knew we had to find a way to make it popular again.’

The Ghosn brothers are clearly a couple of smart cookies. They commissioned a designer to create packaging for their product that would make it stand out from the crowd. The blue bottle was an instant winner and sales grew steadily. In the last couple of years, arak production at Massaya has doubled and their four stills operate twenty-four hours a day, at full capacity.

‘But it’s more than just pretty packaging,’ Ramzi said. ‘Our arak really is very good. We wanted to expand the cellar-door idea, so that anyone could come and look around. It is important for our business to have transparency.’

This focus on quality was always going to be a key factor in luring consumers back to arak. When new manufacturing machinery was introduced to Lebanon during the 1970s and ’80s, some manufacturers developed shortcuts by simply blending any old neutral alcohol with artificial aniseed flavouring. ‘It didn’t even need to be distilled,’ said Ramzi with a shrug of disgust. ‘It was cheap rubbish and gave people bad headaches.’

The Lebanese desperately needed something to dull the horrors of the endless war that was raging all around them so they turned instead to whisky, and for a time they became the world’s biggest per capita consumers of the spirit.

The origins of arak are obscure, but it is manufactured and consumed all around the eastern Arab world. Palestinians, Jordans, Syrians and even Iraqis drink the stuff, but it is generally agreed that Lebanese arak is the best.

The production process is quite straightforward, and what Sami had said was true: arak needs only two ingredients – grapes and aniseed. Quality arak, such as the Massaya brand, is made from obeidi grapes, an ancient Lebanese variety that’s thought to be an ancestor of chardonnay. The grapes are gently crushed and left to ferment for three weeks before being transferred to a copper still, where the magic of distillation begins. It’s a process thought to have been employed in early China and Egypt, and developed further by the Greeks and Romans. But it was the Arabs who were the first to exploit the different boiling points of water and alcohol, turning weak wine into more potent ‘spirits’.

Although the principle is simple, the technique would undoubtedly have needed some refinement in those early days, as the first distillation contains a poisonously high percentage of methanol. This first batch must always be discarded, and quality producers will distil the brew a second, third and sometimes fourth time to achieve the smooth liquor desired.

The next crucial stage is the ageing process, and arak is matured in large clay jars for at least a year. The jars have a porosity that allows for a further evaporation of alcohol, which is known as le part des anges – the angel’s share.

The cellars at Massaya were filled, floor to ceiling, with hundreds of arak-filled clay jars, quietly waiting to be decanted. As we left, Ramzi shared his dream of seeing those blue bottles in bars around the world. Catching the determined gleam in his eye, we found it easy to believe that he might very well succeed.

We came across the premises of Boutros Kazan Pty Ltd by chance one morning as we ambled along Gemmayzeh’s Rue Gouraud. Drawn to a particularly decrepit display of arak bottles languishing dustily in a window, we decided to investigate.

The shop was straight out of Dickensian London, poorly lit by a single bare light bulb swinging from a high vaulted ceiling. In the shadowy recesses of the rear of the shop we could just make out some ancient bottling machinery. Sitting behind a massive desk overflowing with paper-filled ledgers was an old man, formally dressed in a jacket and tie. He rose slowly to his feet and came round to the front of his desk to introduce himself as the proprietor, Mr Georges Kazan.

Mr Kazan had a gentle, courteous manner and was clearly pleased to see us. He was even more pleased to hear about our interest in arak, and invited us to sit while he told us his story.

The Kazan arak distillery was opened in 1919 by Georges’ uncles, Girgi and Boutros, and they moved into the current premises on Rue Gouraud in 1934. Back then, Gemmayzeh wasn’t the gentrified suburb that it has become over the last decade. It was an industrial area, home to large wholesalers and small family businesses – soap makers, oil merchants, chemical manufacturers, butchers and commercial bakers all operated here. Curiously, Gemmayzeh was also the location of choice for a number of other arak distillers, partly due its closeness to the city centre and also because of its handy location between the port and the train station.

Boutros Kazan died childless, and so the business passed to Georges and his brother Ibrahim. By the 1970s they were market leaders, making between two and three million bottles a year. More than forty workers were employed in the Gemmayzeh operations and the company had twelve vans to distribute their precious product around the country. Georges told us proudly that Kazan arak is the oldest brand still being produced in Lebanon, and was the favourite tipple of the mother of King Farouk of Egypt.

We asked Mr Kazan if we could see the still, and his face fell. ‘Alas, we no longer make arak here in Gemmayzeh,’ he told us. As was the case with many other Lebanese businesses, long years of war changed things for Kazan arak. First there were the bombs and sniper fire, then constant interruptions to the water supply, and eventually it became impossible to continue production. So Georges and Ibrahim shifted the distillery and bottling operation to the Bekaa Valley and the Gemmayzeh premises were reduced to a mere shop front.

But worse was to come. Mr Kazan told us that by the end of the year he would probably move on from Rue Gouraud. ‘After more than seventy years,’ he sighed. ‘The rent for the building has become too expensive. We cannot afford to stay here.’ He got to his feet and reached up to a shelf behind his desk. ‘This,’ he said, producing a small, half-full bottle, ‘is the oldest bottle of arak in Lebanon. It was made by my father on the day I was born. He made sixty bottles to drink on my wedding day.’ Mr Kazan smiled. ‘When I got married at twenty-three years old, we opened some bottles, but it was no good. So we closed them again and kept them for another ten years. There is only this one bottle left now.’ Good manners restrained us from asking exactly how old the arak was, but we did ask how it tasted now. Mr Kazan’s smile grew even wider. ‘Delicious’ he declared.

There was something I was curious about, and I was sure Mr Kazan would have an informed view. I wanted to know the proportions of water, arak and ice for the perfect drink. By way of reply, he shuffled across the room and returned with another bottle of arak and a few small glasses. He disappeared again, then reappeared with a jug of water and a small bowl of ice. ‘It is like this that one prepares arak,’ he said, in his meticulous, old-fashioned French. ‘First, you pour in the arak.’ A healthy slug went into each little glass. ‘Next, you must add the cold water. And it should be three times the amount of arak. Now you must leave it for two to three minutes before adding any ice.’

‘Why?’ I wondered.

‘Eh bien. As you know, arak is very high in alcohol, which is a good conductor of heat. You leave it for a few moments with the cold water so it can adjust to the ambient temperature. This way it does not get such a shock when you add the ice.’ He picked up a small pair of tongs and dropped one cube carefully into each glass. ‘Ça y’est. Only one block of ice with the arak. More and it is a heresy.’ And with that, he passed us each a glass and lifted his own to his lips. ‘Saha!’ he exclaimed, before taking a big gulp.

We stood there in the half-light, sipping slowly, savouring the smooth, cool, peppermint taste and the warmth of the arak. For a moment, it was as if time stood still in this small, cluttered shop. We were holding, if not infinity, then a man’s lifetime in the palms of our hands. Outside, a horn honked. In the Rue Gouraud there was a traffic jam. Life went on as usual.

Recipes in this Chapter

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